Advocates Urge EU, FTC To Probe Google Location Tracking

Google tricks people into allowing their whereabouts to be tracked, privacy groups are telling officials on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Location data and history can reveal in detail an individual’s lifestyle, daily routines and interests. Over time the data can be used to infer highly sensitive information such as religious beliefs, political views and sexual orientation,” representatives of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue -- which includes more than 75 privacy groups in the U.S. and Europe -- say in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission. “Google manipulates and nudges users of mobile phones with the Android operating system, such as Samsung phones, into being constantly location-tracked,”

The Translatantic Consumer Dialogue on Tuesday asked the FTC to investigate whether Google uses “deceptive and misleading practices” to dupe Android users into allowing the company to gather location data. Seven consumer organizations in Europe also said Tuesday they will file complaints alleging that Google's location tracking practices violate the General Data Protection Regulation.

The privacy organizations draw on the new report, “Every Step You Take,” issued Tuesday by the Norwegian Consumer Council -- a group funded by the Norwegian government. That paper argues that Google's design follows a “dark pattern” that can result in Android users inadvertently allowing the company to collect a host of information.

For instance, the report says, a smartphone setting that allows Google to collect location data is turned off by default, but Google's interface encourages people to unwittingly allow collection of that data.

“On Android devices, users that do not wish to enable Location History have to decline the setting at least four times when using different services that are preinstalled on Android phones; in Google Assistant, Google Maps, Google app, and Google Photos,” the report states. “Instead of Google taking 'no' for an answer, users have to keep making the same choice repeatedly. This increases the chances that users turn on the setting, either by accident, because they are tired of being asked, or because they believe that the services will not work otherwise.”

Even when users don't turn on Location History, Google still collects location data from services like search and maps, unless users reconfigure the separate “Web and App Activity” setting, the report notes.

The report “shows Android users are being manipulated into enabling Location History and Web & App activity settings,” the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue says in its letter to the FTC.

In Europe, the advocacy groups stated that Google “uses various tricks and practices” to ensure that users enable collection of location data. “These unfair practices leave consumers in the dark about the use of their personal data,” the European groups said. “Additionally they do not give consumers a real choice other than providing their location data, which is then used by the company for a wide range of purposes including targeted advertising.”

Google hasn't yet responded to MediaPost's request for comment. Google's location-tracking practices were highlighted earlier this year by The Associated Press, which detailed how the company stores location data. Soon after that report came out, Google was hit with a class-action complaint in federal court.

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